Elections in Sedgwick County have been on a downhill slide ever since Secretary of State Scott Schwab dismissed Tabitha Lehman as election commissioner two years ago.
And now, the successor Schwab picked, Angela Caudillo, is calling it quits after only 16 months on the job.
In a statement announcing Caudillo’s departure, Schwab tried to blame it on county commissioners. “Angela led the Election Office through challenging times, often with limited resources and funding from the county commission,” said Schwab. “When resources and needs are not met, and the political environment toward election officials is hostile, we lose talent.”
If he’s actually serious, things must look a whole lot different from Topeka than they do here.
Caudillo oversaw two substantial elections and both were well below the standards we had come to expect from our Election Office.
The August primary on the anti-abortion “Value Them Both” amendment was marked by absurdly long waits to vote. Kansas law requires that everyone in line when the polls close at 7 p.m. gets to cast their ballot. Some voters didn’t get to go home until almost three hours after the polls were supposed to close.
The November general election didn’t have the long lines, but it did have an embarrassingly small turnout — only 47% — nine points lower than the last time we voted for governor. And in two races, some residents of the unincorporated county got to cast votes for City Council in cities where they don’t live.
There’s plenty of blame to go around, but let’s start with Schwab. The original sin was dumping Lehman, who excelled at running elections and was a champion of voters’ rights.
The 2020 election was held in the middle of a deadly pandemic and Lehman was undergoing cancer treatment. Her immune system was compromised and her doctor told her she couldn’t go to the office.
But Schwab presented her with an unacceptable choice: Either risk death by working in the office or turn the election over to someone else.
Despite her ill health, Lehman capably oversaw the election from home using a dedicated computer line installed by the county that was as secure as her office computer. But instead of rewarding that dedication, Schwab took the petty path and used it as an excuse to fire her.
When Schwab served in the Kansas House, he voted to give county commissions control of election office budgets. So his complaint about lack of commission support rings pretty hollow, since it was entirely predictable — and predicted at the time.
Blame for the long lines in August lies squarely on the Legislature. In a blatant political maneuver, legislators who wrote the Value Them Both amendment went out of their way to make sure it was on the ballot in what was expected to be a low-turnout, Republican-dominated affair like our primaries had always been.
Voters actually turned out in droves to reject it, overwhelming the underprepared polling places.
The low November turnout was the obvious result of a backroom decision by Caudillo and Republican county commissioners to stop sending applications for mail ballots to all voters — a move guaranteed to suppress voting by mail, which has historically been more popular with Democrats than Republicans.
So now the ball is back in Schwab’s court. Because of a bizarre state law, he gets to pick the top election official in the state’s four largest counties, while smaller counties get to elect theirs.
Here’s hoping he does a better job this time.
Maybe he’ll find someone who’s willing to stand up to county commissioners, legislators and even the secretary of state himself, when they try to mess with voting procedures to tilt the table to partisan advantage.
Maybe he’ll find someone who has a burning passion for free and fair elections and is willing to work grueling hours to get the job done right, no matter what gets in the way.
Maybe he’ll find someone like Tabitha Lehman.